Will Likely

Maryland defensive back Will Likely, second from left, walks past teammates during a practice earlier this month. (Steve Ruark, Baltimore Sun / August 9, 2013)

Athletes have long known about the benefits of running in sand. But running in thick, black muck? While chasing rabbits as they dart and weave?

That's a south-central Florida thing — specifically in the towns of Belle Glade and Pahokee, where for years football players have trained by scurrying after the animals through sugarcane fields. It's an experience that binds together the many Division I stars who grew up near Lake Okeechobee, in Everglades country — an area many of them simply call "The Muck."

Before joining Maryland, freshman cornerback-returner Will Likely III, from Glades Central High School, was part of that unusual fraternity that has produced such NFL players as running back Fred Taylor and receivers Anquan Boldin, Santonio Holmes, Jessie Hester and Reidel Anthony.

Likely's uncle, former Glades Central star Jamarious Rowley, used to take Will out to the fields as farmers burned the leaves from the Sugarcane stalks before the harvest.

"When it's time to actually burn the cane, all the rabbits just come out and you've got to chase them," Likely said after a recent Terps practice. "They do a lot of cutting and, because you're running in the muck, your feet actually stick. You have the cottontails, which are the fastest, and the regular rabbits. We catch them all the time."

With Maryland opening the season at home Saturday against Florida International, Likely has a new task — chasing opposing receivers. He has been competing for time behind established cornerbacks Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson.

Likely is among a number of first-year or second-year Terps expected to make a mark this season. Maryland only has two senior starters on defense, and two on offense.

There is a certain lore that has come to be associated with the rabbit chases of Likely and others. "Some people think it's not real. It is," Likely said.

Sometimes the rabbits are sold or skinned and eaten. Likely said he always gave his rabbit away.

Players emerge from the fields a mess from the muck and the smoke — but perhaps tougher for the experience. "You get all dirty and nasty," said Likely's mother, Canisa Rowley — the older sister of Jamarious — who says she used to chase rabbits, too.

Jamarious Rowley is among the players featured in a 2012 book called "Muck City" that describes the impoverished region's football obsession and calls Glades Central "one of the greatest high school football programs in America."

Anthony, the former NFL receiver, graduated from Glades Central in 1994 and starred at Florida before playing five NFL seasons.

Chasing rabbits "is ingrained in those boys," said Anthony, who was Likely's offensive coordinator at Glades Central. Likely played defensive back in high school — but also running back, receiver and quarterback.

Anthony and Fred Taylor, the retired running back, are mentors to Likely. Likely is close friends ("like brothers," he says) with Taylor's son, Kelvin, a freshman running back at Florida.

"Most people get a chance to train in a whirlpool. We don't have that luxury," Anthony said. "But the muck strengthens your ankles and knees. It's a blessing in disguise. On the welcome sign to Belle Glade, it says, 'Her Soil is her Fortune.'"

Likely, who is 5 feet 7, 175 pounds, speaks softly but possesses an inner toughness and instinctive football savvy.

He was raised by his mother and has tattoos on his ample chest bearing her likeness — and that of his two grandmothers, one still living.

Likely said he doesn't worry about his lack of height. He grew up practicing against receivers such as Florida State's Greg Dent and Miami's Clive Walford, who both attended his high school. His size "doesn't bother me much," Likely said. "To be honest, I feel like either you can play football or you can't."

Anthony said Likely isn't as short — in a relative sense — as it might appear. He said many cornerbacks listed at 5-9 or 5-10 aren't actually that tall.

Likely "reminds me of [retired NFL cornerback] Ronde Barber, who I played with at Tampa, with his ball skills and just making plays," Anthony said. "He wouldn't 'ooh and aah' you with his speed. But you put him on a receiver and they'll have trouble." Barber was listed at 5-10.

Likely aspires to play in the NFL. "I'm praying on it," said his mother, who runs a child-care center in Belle Glade.

In high school, Likely attracted attention by returning a kickoff 99 yards for a score in a game televised by ESPN. After considering Florida and LSU, among other schools, he committed to Maryland and enrolled early, making him eligible for spring workouts.

He's been fielding punts in practice along with Stefon Diggs, who is the primary returner.

Maryland opens the season at home Saturday against Florida International. Likely has been competing for time behind established cornerbacks Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson.

"He's got as much football savvy that I've been around as a freshman — maybe ever," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "If we told him he had to guard a 6-10 guy, he'd find a way to guard him."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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